January 27th, 2014 § § permalink
Las cosas empezaron a deteriorarse poco a poco, unas veces por hablar mucho, otras por callar demasiado; ella se convirtió pronto en una mujer insatisfecha por mil razones, él en un hombre por mil causas frustrado; la falta de acuerdo intelectual acerca de cuestiones elementales y por lo tanto esenciales, como la marcha del país, el papel de sus dirigentes, sus intervenciones bélicas en todo el planeta, la misma mecánica electoral, el valor de la persona humana individualizada en medio de toda aquella maquinaria de producir, consumir y guerrear sin un verdadero y último sentido, así como fundamentalmente la posición de cada uno de ellos con respecto a todas esas cuestiones, su participación en ellas, su inhibición en unos casos o su propia responsabilidad en otros, fueron nuevos motivos de desajustes que pronto salieron a la superficie de su vida cotidiana y que ahondaron de forma definitiva su total incomunicación, una dificultad absoluta y casi insalvable para del diálogo y, tal como iban las cosas, para la convivencia. Esto era tremendo, resultada terrible y absurdo para ambos, les llenaba de confusión, de secreta vergüenza, y, en cierto modo, de pánico. Pero se analizaban un poco más profundamente y entonces sabían que había otras razones, y una de ellas, muy sencilla, era que valoraban de distinta manera la sexualidad y el erotismo, y en este terreno estaban igualmente en desacuerdo, tanto en el plano teórico como en el prático. (Ch. XII)
Things began to deteriorate gradually, sometimes through talking too much , others for being too silent; she soon became a woman unsatisfied for a thousand reasons, he a man frustrated by a thousand causes; the lack of intellectual agreement on basic issues and therefore essential, like the progress of the country, the role of its leaders, its military interventions around the world, the electoral mechanics themselves, the value of the human individual in the midst of all machinery of production, consumption and war without a true and ultimate sense, and essentially the position of each with respect to all these issues, their participation in them, their inhibition or in some cases their own responsibility, they were new motives of disagreements which soon came to the surface of everyday life and permanently deepened their total isolation, an absolute and almost insurmountable difficulty of dialogue and, as things were going, for coexistence. It was awful, terrible and absurd for them both, it filled them with confusion, secret shame, and, in a certain way, panic. But they analyzed it a little more deeply and then they knew that there were other reasons, and one of them, very simply, was that they valued sexuality and eroticism differently, and in this area they were also in disagreement, both theoretical and in practice.
In its second iteration, the Premio Alfaguara winners have included several works that could, with just a little squinting of the eyes, be considered fantasies or science fictions. In reading the 1968 winner, Daniel Sueiro’s Corte de Corteza (The Court of Courtesy), it turns out that even early on, the judges were receptive of a work that is about as science fictional as they come. But tropes ultimately are but window dressing that merely provide a template through which the author either writes a good tale or a mediocre one. In this particular case, the former largely is on display.
Corte de Corteza is set in an unknown, futuristic time in an unspecified country. Adam, a political dissident who is frustrated with the state of affairs in his homeland, walks out into an area known for its violence and is gravely wounded. The doctors try their best to save his body, but the damage to his liver and other vital organs is too great, so they perform emergency brain surgery, in which Adam’s brain is removed and placed in the hollowed-out cranium of a brain-dead man named David. The rest of the novel revolves around the changes that occur in the Adam-David hybrid as Adam’s brain tries to adapt to the changes present in a new body, with ever more pessimistic results.
Like many science fiction writers of the mid-20th century, Sueiro was interested in relationships between person and state, between prior and current states of being. The narrative switches frequently between Adam-David’s interactions with others and introspective passages such as the one cited above, which occurred after Adam’s girlfriend and him slowly become estranged due to the changes that have taken place and which continue to take place within the new Adam hybrid. Sueiro does an excellent job in exploring the dynamics involved here and there certainly are no easy, pat answers for what is transpiring here.
Corte de Corteza also represents a break in style for Sueiro. Previously known as a social realist writer who carefully crafted tales set in contemporary Spain, Corte de Corteza was the beginning of a shift toward a more universal, more experimental sort of narrative in which “big question” concepts are addressed through both character interaction and monologue. There are a few times in this novel where the “big questions” threaten to overwhelm the character who is doing these internal inquiries, but on the whole Sueiro manages to keep Adam-David’s tale grounded enough in the individual/narrator that the reader finds his personality to be as key to the story as the questions he keeps raising about himself and his altered role in society.
The prose, however, is inconsistent, as Sueiro is too inclined at times to delve too broadly into the issues raised in the narrative, leading to passages that feel almost interminable before he transitions toward a new development that occurs more naturally and with less sense of slowness. Yet despite these occasional weaknesses, on the whole, the writing is well-constructed and by story’s end, the impact is greater because of the care that Sueiro took in developing Adam-David’s character. Corte de Corteza might not be the best-written or most powerful of the Premio Alfaguara winners, but it is a good tale that illustrates the variety of narrative styles and content that these award winners have had during both iterations of the Premio Alfaguara. Recommended especially for those curious to see possible parallels between this tale and 1950s and 1960s Anglo-American SF.
January 26th, 2014 § § permalink
Bueno, pues ya me reventaba. Ya estaba harto uno de ver a esa gente que luego va y se vuelve y espera el efecto; espantapájaros amigos de la pausa, de las voces en off, o de los que siempre gritan «muy bien, muy bien», sonríen y acotan con una espátula sus gritos en los discursos. Alquimistas de mierda que en mierda todo lo transforman. To get the thing potruding, ser mosca o ser sardina, o que haya algún buen Dios en la enramada que te saque del lío y te perdone. Séneca, y siglos antes de Séneca un anciano argonauta, y detrás de él un compadre de Aristótles, un físico iracundo que examinaba los procesos de la digestión. Los procesos en vivo, con esclavos de barriga abierta, el ir y venir del bolo alimenticio, el quilo, el exudado perpetuo y excitado de las linfas. Siempre quedan esclavos que rajar y siempre hay sabios para el peri fiseos. Descapullar o no descapullar, y el resto déjalo en inglés, que todo el mundo entiende, a falta de esperanto. Es ese ciertamente un problema hebreo, muy propio de eruditos. Hay prepucios de izquierdas, sindicados, de hiedra viva que se ciñe al tronco y le impide liberarse. A un palmo de la filosofía está el prepucio pensante, y a un palmo del prepucio la filosofía, que va del ojo reventado de Filipo a los esquíes de Heidegger. A la nana ea, a la nana, ea. (p. 10)
Well, I was already busting. I was already fed up seeing one of those people who then goes and turns and awaits the effect; scarecrow friends on pause, of voices on “off”, or those who always shout “very good, very good,” smiling and narrow with a spatula their cries in speeches. Fucking alchemists that transform everything into shit. To get the thing potruding [sic], be it fly or sardines, or there is some good God in the arbor to take you and forgive the mess. Seneca, and centuries before Seneca an old Argonaut, and behind him a compadre of Aristotles , an angry physicist who examined the digestive process. Live processes, with belly-opened slaves, the coming and going of the bolus, the chyle, and the perpetual exudation and excitement of the lymph nodes. Always remain slaves that crack and there are always wisemen for peri fiseos . To unwrap or not, and leave the rest in English that everyone understands, lacking Esperanto. It is certainly a Hebrew problem, very scholarly. There are left foreskins, syndicals, of living ivy that clings to the trunk and impedes it of freeing itself. In a hand of philosophy is the thinking foreskin, and in the palm of the foreskin philosophy, which will trap the eye of Philip to Heidegger’s skies. A la nana ea, a la nana, ea.
Héctor Vásquez Azpiri’s 1967 Premio Alfaguara-winning novel Fauna is the most experimental winner of the first iteration of this Spanish-language award. It is a monologue that stretches over 240 pages and covers all sorts of topics, ranging from the sample provided above (as always, errors in translation are mine, particularly with rough drafts) to matters of faith and love. Fauna certainly is not a story read for its plot, although its themes certainly provide lots of grist for pensive mills.
Like many writers from the mid-20th century, Vásquez Azpiri appears to be influenced by James Joyce. In his meandering monologue, there are echoes of both Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake, particularly in how certain phrases are reused in ways to accentuate the connections between phonics and semantics. But there are some interesting parallels with Vásquez Azpiri’s contemporaries. In reading Fauna, I found myself thinking occasionally of Alfonso Grosso’s Florido Mayo (which won the 1973 Premio Alfaguara) and how each used stream of consciousness to raise questions about socio-cultural issues that troubled Spain during mid-century. Where Grosso used the past to address these matters, Vásquez Azpiri couches these concerns in questioning passages, such as this repeating question from near the end of Ch. 6, where after exploring desires embodied in classical prose, this question, «¿Era eso libertad?» (“Was that liberty?”) closes out key sections.
Desire is never far from the surface of the narrative, as each form of it (sexual, monetary, wisdom-seeking, power-grabbing, etc.) is explored in often playful passages. Vásquez Azpiri is careful never to sate these desires, instead raising more and more questions that drive the reader to consider more and more what is transpiring. The free-flowing stream of consciousness narrative serves as a vehicle for question consideration, allowing the reader to shape the import of each passage to his or her liking. The result is a monologue that somehow acts simultaneously as a dialogue, between the always-speaking narrator and the “silent” audience (in the opening paragraph, the narrator refers to this gathered silence on a couple of occasions).
Fauna is one of the better Premio Alfaguara winners that I have read over the past several years. Its blend of introspective questioning and wild imagery make it a memorable read that promises to retain its exuberance upon future re-reads. While it owes something to Joyce and other mid-20th century writers of stream of consciousness narrative, Fauna does not feel too derivative, as it contains enough originality of thought and theme to make it worthwhile readers’ time to read. It is a shame that it, along with most of the older Premio Alfaguara winners, are not available in English, as there likely would be some interest for these tales from those readers who are drawn to Joyce, Pynchon, or Faulkner. Regardless, Fauna holds up well nearly fifty years after its initial publication, possessing a “freshness” that would appeal to many readers who seek more than the mundane when they open a book.
January 25th, 2014 § § permalink
Life is a tricky creature to capture in media, whether it be film or the printed word. The gestures endemic to one place and time do not always map out well when transported into a static medium. The petty gestures and grandiose quirks of people often become distorted when transcribed. Writing a story “true to life” is a much more daunting (and all too frequently, unrewarding) task than most readers realize. This is especially true when the author is foolhardy enough to start his or her tale by looking at the lives of several people. When done correctly, such tales have a profound power because we can see in them the people around us, their foibles and their triumphs, their dreams, aspirations, and most of all, their grounded actions and expressions. Some great writers express this spectrum of humanity in picturesque terms, with characters that might be slight modifications of those that appear in Dickens’ The Pickwick Papers. Others, however, dig into our collective quotidian muck and dredge something profound out of it. Ugliness can yield a repulsive beauty, sometimes, and this can be seen in some of Faulkner’s works or in some of Joyce’s tales. Whenever a writer manages to achieve, even partially, this elevation of the vulgar to a artistic verisimilitude, it is a work to be cherished.
Luís Berenguer’s 1972 Premio Alfaguara-winning novel, Leña Verde (Green Firewood), is one of those novels that has pretensions to achieving this difficult feat. Set in Spain of the author’s youth of the Spanish Civil War and its immediate aftermath, Leña Verde is the tale of Juan Antonio Carvajal’s return to his Andalusian village after being gone for four years. Last in a line of rich landowners, Carvajal observes the changes that have occurred in the interim, as well as the enduring problems of class divisions. The effects of these inequalities are seen throughout the novel and they drive the plot.
If reduced to simply providing a synopsis of the main plot, that of a frustrated love and the tragedies that follow, Leña Verde would be merely yet another variation on a well-worn theme. Yet the characterizations and Berenguer’s use of imagery and symbolism make this a rather remarkable novel. When I read it several days ago, I found myself thinking of Faulkner’s use of place to create deeper connections between the characters and also with the reader. Berenguer’s countryside setting is rich with those “little things” that make this tale feel “true to life.” From the ways that the characters spoke to their actions, every little thing felt vital, imbued with a liveliness that helps the reader to identify with these characters and their situations. The rivalry of Carvajal and Donaire is played out in such a fashion that when the final sentence is reached, the reader has the impression of lives lived out before them.
Berenguer’s prose is fascinating in part because of the author’s background. Unlike most of his peers in late Francoist Spain, Berenguer was not an academic critic or trained artist. He was a naval officer who was largely an autodidact in literature. His writings show traces of Faulkner and Joyce, particular in the use of language to create a setting and setting to establish character. His characters, based in part on people he knew in his youth of the 1920s-early 1940s, feel like they have walked into a novel rather than being created by their author. Leña Verde, however, is not an “easy” novel; it does not yield up all of its treasures in a single reading. In reading it, I was struck by the sense that there were hidden depths that I was missing. Certainly it will be a novel that I will revisit, likely several times, in the years to come. It may not be the most famous of the Spanish novels of the 1960s and 1970s, but it certainly is a tale that deserves the accolades that it has received and hopefully there will be a new generation of readers that will discover this fine novel in the years to come.
January 19th, 2014 § § permalink
Some novels are easy to grasp. The narrative unfolds from A to B to C, never varying in rhythm or pace until the denouement. The characters float along this narrative stream, moving and being moved, but never seeing their plot arcs spinning out into eddies or drowned by plot undercurrents. These novels are quickly digested, their basic themes and mechanics readily understood. Some great novels have this quality of facility, of making its structure and form easy to internalize.
Then there are those tales that befuddle the reader, at least initially. The narrative splinters, casting a prism’s worth of lights, forcing the reader to consider these separate strands simultaneously. Time flows backwards, if not sideways, looping around until the end becomes the beginning and a creased circle closes. For some, the effort involved in parsing the text is too great, but for others, re-reads yield a treasure trove’s worth of symbols and themes that enrich the (re)reading experience. The difficulty (if such a word is truly applicable) in wresting meaning makes the reading rewards all the greater.
Spanish writer Alfonso Grosso’s 1973 Premio Alfaguara-winning novel, Florido Mayo, is one of the latter novel. The writing is lush, almost too ornate for early 21st century tastes. There are passages full of coupled descriptions that dovetail into descriptions of times past or literary present. At first, it was a bewildering reading experience, as I had to focus carefully on these descriptive passages in order to understand their relations to the narrative that was unfolding.
Florido Mayo moves back and forth in time, from the period in Spanish history immediately preceding World War I to the beginning of Republican rule in the early 1930s. It is a fictionalized autobiography of Grosso’s life growing up around Seville, Spain, but the descriptions of time and place owe more to stream-of-consciousness techniques than they do to any naturalist or realist narrative modes. His descriptions of life in Ciudad Fluvial in some senses is reminiscent of Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County (there are even direct references to this in the novel, including a footnote that connects one of Grosso’s characters, Emily, with “A Rose for Emily”), but in Grosso’s use of language and metaphor, he is closer to Joyce, who he references several times in the narrative, including the final paragraph. Yet Florido Mayo avoids aping these two greats. The languid rhythm, punctuated with sharp bursts in the love/obsession story embedded within the tale, feels organic to the story and rarely derivative.
The characterizations take a back seat to the stream-of-consciousness narrative, but on the whole they are well done. The story is at first hard to grasp, in part due to having to acclimate myself to the writing, but after the first few time sections, roughly thirty pages in, the pieces began to come together and scene flows into scene almost seamlessly. This creates a narrative that hints at deeper levels if the reader carefully considers what is presented. Florido Mayo left me feeling that I had only grasped only the surface details and that when I re-read it, much more will be revealed. Considering how much I enjoyed this narrative of life and desire in a sleepy Spanish town, this bodes well. A shame that this novel seems to have gone out of print, as it is one of the best examples of its kind that I have read in Spanish.
January 6th, 2014 § § permalink
Creo que sólo algunos padres representan a su vez la idea de padre, como algunas esposas la idea de esposa y algunos empleados de grandes almacenes la idea de empleado de grandes almacenes. Porque nada más que unas cuantas personas son las elegidas para simbolizar al resto de las personas. Así que esas raras ocasiones en que mi padre me abrazaba y trataba de comunicarme su amor no han servido de gran cosa, no se han convertido en idea. Porque, en el fondo, más que padres auténticos lo que se quiere son ideas con las que vivir, con las que seguir cavilando todo el santo día, con las que continuar dándole vueltas a la cabeza, con las que poder unir esto con aquello, o sea, un cierto material para hacer lo que no se puede dejar de hacer: pensar y pensar. Por eso cuando alguien te abraza, pero el abrazo no se te queda en la mente, es como si no te hubieran abrazado. No es tan desesperante que no te quieran si no necesitas imaginarte que eres querido, amado, como diría Alien. (pp. 130-131)
I believe that only some parents represent in their time the ideal of parenthood, just like some wives the ideal of the wife and some department store employees the ideal of the department store employee. For nothing more than a few people are chosen to symbolize other people. So on those rare occasions when my father hugged me and tried to communicate his love it didn’t help much, wasn’t ideal. Because, in the end, rather than real parents what they want are ideas with which to live, with which to follow brooding all day, with which continue turning the head, with which to unite this with that, that is, a certain material doing what they can’t stop doing: thinking and thinking. So when someone hugs you, but that hug does not stay in the mind, it’s as though you had not embraced. It’s not as frustrating that they don’t love you if you do not need to imagine that you are wanted, loved, like say Alien.
Suburbia is a late twentieth century socio-cultural malaise that first began to be seen in isolated teenage wastelands several miles from the decaying centers of large urban areas sometime in the 1970s or early 1980s. Symptoms of this malaise include harried parents who have less and less “quality time” (this word being itself a symbol of the malaise) for their children; vapid interactions of adolescents with their peers and the world itself; and only medium-deep introspection that progressively proves to be shallow the older the would-be thinker becomes and the more callouses s/he develops from the indifference of those around him/her. In cinema, where such symptoms are not just esteemed but are idealized, the infected may gather in shy, haltering breakfast clubs, may see if they are pretty in pink, or perhaps snort a few lines of coke before lighting sixteen candles. Yet despite the potential for self-parody and a deepening of this sense of socio-cultural disconnect, for the past thirty-five years or so, writers as well as filmmakers have sought to capture this seemingly paradoxical pathos of the emotionally drained youth.
Clara Sánchez’s 2000 Premio Alfaguara-winning novel, Últimas noticias del paraíso (Latest News from Paradise), on the surface breaks no new ground. Her protagonist, the teen Fran, has concerns and issues that were a dime a dozen in teen-oriented novels and movies of the 1980s and 1990s. He lacks a good family life; his parents are preoccupied with other matters those rare times that they are physically present in his everyday life. Like so many before him, he searches for answers. Can happiness be found in drugs, in sex, or is he fated to just be another smothered candle, with his life’s brightness doused prematurely by the pressures placed upon him? Despite the familiarity most readers will have with the subject matter, Sánchez does do a good job in fleshing out Fran’s character.
Últimas noticias del paraíso does not contain any big reveals or titanic climaxes. Instead, there is an episodic feel to the narrative, as Fran meanders his way around Madrid’s suburbs, seeking out friends (one important one being the so-called “Alien,” who represents the kid who is smart yet who has become disenchanted with life) and musing over the frustrations that have beset him. Those of us who grew up “latch key kids” or were labeled “Gen X slackers” will readily understand his conundrums and the various ways in which he seeks out new experiences to fill the void left by his parents’ frequent absences. He is not the twin to Alberto Fuguet’s Matías (Mala Onda); he is not especially embittered by the vapidity surrounding him, but he does represent a mirror to Fuguet’s character in his desire to escape, to find that little bit of imagined “paradise” around him. The narrative follows his search for meaning and his eventual finding of something that gives Fran hope for the future. It is a small, rather subtle conclusion, yet it contains surprising power to it.
The characterization is fairly well-done, although the character types often resemble those from other period writings. If there is something that Sánchez can be faulted with in the prose, it would be the relative lack of slang expressions. Fran’s voice feels almost too polished, not always close to that of an angst-filled teen, and there are times that this creates an artificial levity that threatens to leech energy away from the narrative. But this is balanced with some keen observations on the part of Fran that leads to a quick-moving, fast-paced narrative that somehow manages to retain a good narrative flow.
Compared to the previous Premio Alfaguara winners, Últimas noticias del paraíso is a slighter work. It is not a poor nor even a mediocre novel, but it is a novel that settles for being a quieter, less moving narrative than its award-winning predecessors. This is not a bad thing, mind you, but does mean that Últimas noticias del paraíso leaves this reader wishing there was just a little bit more to it, a little bit more than just telling a frequently-told teen tale just a little bit better than most of its sort.
January 5th, 2014 § § permalink
Recién aprobada la cátedra de literatura llegó a Circea, pequeña ciudad de la costa, con veintisiete años, solo, con una úlcera de duodeno y una maleta llena de libros. Tenía todos sus estudios a flor de piel y ninguna experiencia de la vida. El Instituto de segunda enseñanza, donde el joven profesor iba a impartir su asignatura, estaba situado muy cerca del mar y cuando lo visitó por primera vez, antes de que comenzara el curso, Ulises Adsuara tuvo una sensación muy agradable al comprobar que desde la tarima de su aula, a través del ventanal, mientras explicara a sus alumnos los clásicos griegos y latinos podría ver toda la raya del Mediterráneo dividida por la escollera del puerto. Indudablemente sería un privilegio hablar de Homero y del Virgilio sin dejar de contemplar su cuna de agua meciéndose a sus pies. (p. 43)
Recently appointed the literature chair he arrived at Circea, a little town on the coast, twenty-seven years old, alone, with an ulcer of the duodenum and a suitcase full of books. He had book knowledge and no experience of life. The Grammar School, where the young teacher would teach his subject, was situated near the sea and when he first visited it, before beginning the course, Ulises Adsuara had a nice feeling to see that from the stage their classroom through the window, while explaining to his students the classic Greek and Latin writers would be able to see the whole Mediterranean divided by the harbor breakwater. Undoubtedly it would be a privilege to speak of Homer and Virgil without stopping to contemplate his watery crib rocking at his feet.
Manuel Vicent’s 1999 Premio Alfaguara-winning novel Son de Mar (Song of the Sea) is one of those rare novels in which the premise, which begins with a drowned body washing ashore and then goes back fifteen years in time, interesting as it may be, pales in comparison to the depth of character development and emotion. It is a story chock full of allusions to classic literature, particularly The Odyssey and The Aeneid, and readers familiar with the themes present in those two epic poems will see parallels in Vicent’s text, especially in the structure of the narrative, in which time and place at times dilate into something that is more ethereal than the present yet somehow also more vivid and memorable.
The first chapter begins with a drowned body washing ashore and the surprise that the villagers of the Mediterranean town of Circea (itself an allusive name) have when the body appears to resemble greatly that of a former classics schoolteacher, Ulises Adsuara, who had presumably drowned near there ten years previously. Vicent carefully develops this mystery by having the villagers recall this presumed-dead person’s key points in life, particularly his relationship with a woman, Martina, who had remarried after his presumed death. Key points are paradoxically foreshadowed here, leading the reader wanting to know more about this mysterious man and how things developed to the point of his earlier drowning.
Subsequent chapters go back fifteen years in the past, covering the young, callow Ulises as he arrives in town, fresh with book knowledge and no understanding of life itself. The chapters in which he meets his landlord’s daughter and they begin a courtship that contains quotations from Vergil on the tragic relationship of Aeneas and Dido develop both Ulises and Martina’s characters, making their love story a continuation of sorts of the tales told by Homer and Vergil. And yet there is trouble in paradise, and the lovers have a rift develop, centered around an old flame of Martina’s who is one of the wealthiest individuals in town.
Vicent does an excellent job developing these tensions. Ulises’ first “death” is something purposely left cloudy, in order that the mysterious phone call that Martina receives ten years later from a man claiming to be Ulises can have a more lasting impact. The second half of the novel is about return and if it is a matter of enduring love, of the sort Odysseus had for Penelope despite his occasional dalliances, or a matter of confused emotions. While Vicent leans more toward the former (and the text certainly contains Homeric metaphors that support this reflowering of love), it is not a simple love tale. The machinations of Martina’s second husband adds a counterpoint to the romantic elements, setting the stage for a conclusion in which the titular yacht, previously sailed by the actor Yul Brynner, plays a pivotal role.
If Vicent merely had stuck with the romance story, it would have been a solid tale but one that would lack a richness in prose and characterization that readers who do not typically read such fare might cling to as a reason for enjoying the novel. However, Son de Mar‘s prose is beautiful to read without ever feeling too ornate or devoid of warmth. There are few extraneous passages and the classical references add greatly to the novel. It may not pack the immediate punch of the two preceding Premio Alfaguara co-winners in terms of psychological trauma or political turmoil, but Son de Mar‘s quiet and yet subtly powerful human drama makes this a worthy winner of the Premio Alfaguara.
January 3rd, 2014 § § permalink
Margarita, está linda la mar,
y el viento
lleva esencia sutil de azahar;
en el alma una alondra cantar
Margarita, te voy a contar
– Rubén Dario, “Margarita, está linda la mar”
In my review of the other 1998 Premio Alfaguara co-winning novel, Eliseo Alberto’s Caracol Beach, I noted how the selection process differs from most Anglophone literary awards in that unpublished manuscripts are submitted under pseudonyms in an effort to deter bias toward established writers. Here, I want to discuss some prevailing trends in the winning novels for those who are unfamiliar with the winners and their stories. Spanish-language literature is not as clearly divided into realist and speculative supergenres, as are Anglophone (in particular, UK) books. In Alberto’s story, a hint of the psychotic, of the quasi-fantastic co-exists comfortably with the “real.” In Sergio Ramírez’s Margarita, está linda la mar, we see another prominent literary trend, that of the political-social novel. While there is no shortage of Anglophone novels that deal with social concerns (often encapsulated in personal crises), there is a distinct paucity of tales that deal with individual/group relations with the government. In Central America in particular, there is a greater concern about the government and its (often deleterious) impact on human lives.
Nicaragua is a prime example of this melding of the political and the social in its national literature. It is, after all, the birthplace of the great poet Rubén Darío, widely considered to be one of the most influential and important poets of the late 19th and early 20th century. Even today, Darío’s poems on Latin American life and the frequent struggles to establish national identity and policy in the face of insidious American imperialism speak strongly to the hearts of many, particularly in his native land. Ramírez is no stranger to the hotbed of political discontent; he was a prominent member of the socialistic Sandinista movement that overthrew the US-backed dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza in 1979.
Some might think that having a partisan writing about the events surrounding the 1956 assassination of the first Anastasio Somoza might lead to stilted prose and overheated rhetoric; the examples of well-written literary quasi-propaganda in English are very few and far between. This, however, is not the case with Ramírez’s tale. It is a story of contrasts and conflicts that stretch over nearly a half-century of Nicaraguan history, from Darío’s fateful visit in 1907 and his inscription of “Margarita, está linda la mar” on a little girl’s fan to the events leading up to the 1956 assassination. Ramírez alternates between discussing Darío’s time and the literary “present,” with several parallels running between them, in particular, the Darío-obsessed group that meets to discuss the great poet…and to plot how to take out the brutal Somoza.
The reader quickly becomes accustomed to Ramírez’s shifts between the past and “present,” as each flows thematically into the other in a nearly seamless fashion. Utilizing chapter headings taken from Darío’s most famous works, Ramírez skillfully constructs a tale that serves simultaneously as a panoramic view of 20th century Nicaragua and as a detailed look at the machinations of dictatorship. His characters are developed skillfully; little space is wasted on establishing their identities before their roles in this unfolding event take place. Even the titular Margarita makes an appearance here; her interest in the growing conspiracy serves to connect the Darían past with the Somoza “present.”
Ramírez is careful to avoid cardboard depictions of the pro-Somoza and conspiracy supporters. Margarita, está linda la mar rarely feels like a political tract, instead being a much more complex view of Nicaragua’s past than what might be expected from a former Sandinista leader. Yet there are a few problems with the text. At times, Ramírez becomes too caught up in the attempt to parallel the events of 1907 and 1956, with strained connections existing between the two times. Yet this is a minor flaw compared to the rich prose and the intricately-developed plot that encourages the reader to read just one more chapter, one more page, before closing the book for a break.
How does Margarita, está linda la mar compare to Alberto’s Caracol Beach? Although my personal preference is toward the psychological madness depicted in Alberto’s novel, Margarita, está linda la mar comes very near to that other novel’s level of technical achievement. Ramírez’s prose might be a bit subtler in places than Alberto’s and while I preferred Alberto’s setting, Ramírez’s Nicaragua is a memorable setting filled with intriguing characters. It is easy to understand the difficult decision the jury had to make and certainly Margarita está linda la mar is worthy of being a Premio Alfaguara winner. Highly recommended and also available in English translation.
January 2nd, 2014 § § permalink
Justo cuando emprendían la fuga Martin les cortó el paso con un pedido inaplazable: ir por cerveza a la licorería de la autopista. Se había fumado un segundo porro de marihuana y se sintió con bríos de subir a gatas el Himalaya con tal de que Laura se fijase en él. Por un momento tuvo la tentación de regresar a la cueva donde se atesoraban los vinos. Se contuvo porque no había droga lo suficientemente poderosa para hacerle perder el respeto a sus mayores. Esa indecisión iba de costarle carísimo, pero Martin no podía saber que en el kilómetro dieciséis de la autopista a Caracol Beach el velador del deshuesadero de coches había estado soñando con un tigre de Bengala que traía una rata en la boca. (p. 76)
Just when they began the fire Martin intercepted them with an urgent request: to go for beer at the highway liquor store. He had smoked a second marijuana joint and he felt strong enough to climb the Himalayas on all fours as long as Laura paid attention to him. For a moment he was tempted to return to the cave where they had stored the wine. He restrained himself because there was no drug strong enough to make him lose the respect of his elders. That indecision was going to cost him dearly, but Martin couldn’t have known that on kilometer 16 of the Caracol Beach highway that the auto junkyard guard had been dreaming of a Bengal tiger which had brought a mouse in its mouth.
Before discussing Cuban writer/filmmaker Eliseo Alberto’s book Caracol Beach, I want to note a few things about the Premio Alfaguara selection process that has made for a distinctive series of winners. Unlike most other literary prizes, where already-published books are submitted to a jury by publishers, the Premio Alfaguara solicits manuscripts from the Spanish-speaking world (including the United States), with pseudonyms and alternate titles given in place of author and work. The publisher/sponsor of this award, Grupo Santillana de Ediciones, S.A., then asks a jury of five individuals, usually including a famous writer (for the first year, Carlos Fuentes chaired the five-person jury), to read through the hundreds of manuscripts (usually between 400-700) over the course of several months to select a winner. For the first year of this award’s re-establishment, 1998, two novels were chosen, one of which was Alberto’s Caracol Beach.
Caracol Beach is a compact, sometimes surrealistic novel whose action takes place at a ritzy Florida beach in 1994. It features a former Cuban soldier, Alberto Beto Milanés, who was the sole survivor of a horrific series of events during the Angolan Civil War of the 1970s and 1980s. He is haunted by a yellow Bengal tiger with wings who visits him in waking nightmares, pressuring him to seek suicide and failing at that task. It is also a story of a tragic teen love triangle whose grisly end is foretold from the beginning chapters with remarks similar to the passage quoted above. It is a tale of gruff ex-soldier policeman and his strained relationship with his young transvestite son and that son’s Armenian lover.
However, Caracol Beach is more than the sum of its parts. Each of these elements blends together to create something vital and moving for its readers. Beto Milanés’ chapters, full of feverish self-recrimination, evoke a sense of hysteria and self-damnation reminiscent of movies such as Apocalypse Now. As we witness his degradation and descent into full-blown madness, or as the tiger becomes more and more “real” on-page, the tragedy of his imminent dissolution becomes inevitable. Yet like a rubber-necking driver going past a deadly crash, we read on with fascination. What in the hell is this crazy fucker going to do?
We learn just what when we get to the second strand, involving the teens Martin Lowell, Tom Chávez, and the object of their desire, Laura Fontanet. Alberto reminds us throughout their plot arc of the looming deaths for two of the three involved; Laura’s kidnapping ties this into Beto Milanés’ story. From there, the policeman Sam Ramos is belatedly put on the trail after his deputy screws things up. But Ramos has connections with this unfolding violent tragedy that go far beyond trying to prevent the fateful denouement promised for several of the actors involved.
Chance and Fate are the twin themes of Caracol Beach. What an intricate web of connections that are revealed as the story unfolds; a single conversation shifts the course of action dramatically while seemingly minor actors and actresses end up playing key roles in creating the tragedy that follows. Fate looms large throughout all this, as we just know things are going to go down badly. In the hands of a less skilled writer, this could be overbearing and deleterious to the overall narrative flow. However, Alberto’s use of foretold tragedy is similar to that of Gabriel García Márquez’s in Chronicle of a Death Foretold (fitting, considering that Alberto often collaborated with García Márquez and adapted several of Gabo’s stories for cinema). While we know what is going to happen, the hows and whys of that we are led to anticipate. This creates a cathartic effect similar to that achieved by the best Greek tragedians. We care what happens to that crazed soldier and to those doomed kids and we want to see what the others learn from being witnesses to their ends.
Alberto’s writing is impeccable. He easily shifts from elegant, descriptive scenes to powerful, damning denunciations in the course of a single paragraph. He has a tendency here to close chapters with foretelling comments such as this:
En ese preciso instante, aunque no lo supieran, los dos amigos habían comenzado a morir cerca del kilómetro dieciséis de la autopista entre Santa Fe y Caracol Beach. (p. 126)
At that precise moment, although they didn’t know it, the two friends had begun to die near kilometer 16 of the highway between Santa Fe and Caracol Beach.
Anticipation without a suitable conclusion would ruin a work. Thankfully, Alberto’s final scenes weave together the various strands to create a compelling, visual work. The panorama of human life, those ties that bind and those that cut into us, is presented here wonderfully. Alberto has much to say about how events affect us; we see one spectrum of it through the thoughts of poor Beto Milanés, while the opposite is shown in the epilogue. This wide range of human reactions, coupled with his expert use of scene and imagery, makes Alberto’s Caracol Beach a powerful read. His co-win sets the tone for the other Premio Alfaguara winners to follow. Highly recommended and available in English translation.